Cry for my beloved Antakya

Cry for my beloved Antakya

On the 35th day since the earthquake struck, I enter Antakya[1]. I am rendered speechless by the horror of the scene before me. Everywhere I turn, everything is destroyed. I search for a building that may have withstood the force of the tremors but find none. The city lies in ruins, as if it is a film set. But this is real, and words fail me in trying to describe it.

Seated beside me, my friend from Antakya recounts their experience:

“I had to make a choice. My uncle, aunt and their children were under the rubble. It was day three and time was running out.  With the help of friends from Istanbul, we managed to procure a crane and I managed to convince the AFAD[2] team to come to the wreckage. After the briefest of searches, they declared that there was no one to be found. Lacking both thermal cameras and technical equipment, they were ill-equipped to handle the situation. Frustrated and desperate, I implored them to at least save my uncle and aunt’s two young children, I managed to bully the AFAD team into saving the two young people. I left the others to die.”

Tears well up in my friend’s eyes. “I left them to die,” she repeats. Nevertheless, along with most of the people of Antakya, she wants the horror they have experienced to be heard, and for their pain to be known:

“We only exist as things, we have become pieces of meat, we are reduced to nothing,” she says.

Most of the people I interviewed from Antakya are currently facing serious security concerns, in addition to the recent earthquake. Reports of looting and incidents of rape that occurred in the aftermath of the earthquake have caused the Alevi (Arab-Alawite) population of Antakya to remain vigilant even as they are forced to reside in their tents for extended periods.

“After three days without any state officials arriving, it became apparent that we had been abandoned to our fate, left to fend for ourselves, with the constant fear of being run over, raped, or killed. Fortunately, on the fourth day our young people took up arms to protect us. The nights were the worst, alone in the darkness with no defence.  The Syrian border was open, and we couldn’t tell who was coming or going. No shelter, water, or food, and no security or support from AFAD. All you hear is that this friend died, he died, she died, as if it was just ordinary news.  You say, ‘Oh, he visited me quite recently, or we were going to do this or that with them this Friday’.

The Alevi community in Antakya continues to harbour a deep-seated distrust of the state. Their fear of being handed over to Islamist or jihadist gangs remains one of their most pressing concerns, even after 35 days have passed since the earthquake.

The earthquake itself was a frightening experience, but the real fear was for our safety. We had wondered for years what might happen, and now we were living through it. On the one hand you can’t bring yourself to believe that they might have it in them, but on the other hand you know they have the power to do it.”

Their reasoning is that if the state turns a blind eye to acts of rape and looting, they may also permit jihadist groups from Syria to enter Turkey and target the Alevi community. In every tent city I have visited – maybe I should call them ‘tent neighbourhoods’, the stories are the same.

“My (Sunni) neighbour was the first to throw a stone through the window of my pharmacy. He was the first looter, and then he invited the whole neighbourhood to join him. How am I going to live next door to these people now?” says a young Antakya resident.

Eight hundred thousand people are said to have abandoned the city completely. In places like Defne, Harbiye, Serinyol, and Samandağ I see tiny tent communities set up by people near their original neighbourhoods thanks to support from civil society initiatives.  In contrast, AFAD’s tent cities located on the outskirts of the city, are relatively vacant as people prefer to stay closer to their homes, neighbourhoods and communities, despite the devastation caused by the earthquake.

The situation is characterized by utter chaos and confusion and amidst this chaos, people are struggling to find a way forward. Some teachers have resorted to setting up tents in the gardens of ruined schools to prepare students for their upcoming exams. Local artists, who have mourned the loss of their friends, are now organizing activities for children in other tents. Some business owners are trying to convince local co-operatives to sell existing stocks of goods. However, there are those who are simply unable to find the strength to continue. In one of the tents, I encounter a formerly wealthy woman who used to own some hotels.

“I had hotels, a house, everything I needed. Everyone has died, I’m the only one left. My hotels were destroyed. Now they tell me to get up and carry on. I don’t even have underwear – how am I supposed to keep going?” she asks me.

I don’t have an answer for her. It’s unclear how the people of Antakya will be able to recover from this disaster. Thirty-five days on, the city doesn’t have a single open market. Even necessities like cheese must be brought in from other cities. Currently, people are being sustained by soup kitchens, but what will happen in the future remains uncertain.

All the people I interviewed share the opinion that this disaster was inevitable. “They filled every square foot of the Amik plain, constructed towering buildings on it, despite our warnings that nature would have its revenge. This was bound to happen sooner or later,” remarks a friend of mine who is associated with the Antakya environmental board. “Even though everyone spoke up, Nurcan, the state turned a deaf ear to their advice,” she adds.

Some of those who had left the city after the earthquake are now coming back. When I ask about their motivation for returning, one of them explains, “If we abandon our homes, the state will replace us with others. The state already harbours animosity towards us. If you were in their position, would you want to have an enlightened and democratic community here who does not support you? I wouldn’t either. This would alter the demographic makeup of the region. They will declare, ‘Look, this land is unoccupied, these people are not returning,’ and they will resettle other groups.”

Everywhere in Antakya, there is a pervasive sense of deep distrust in the state, which only serves to fuel anxiety and fear. At night in Harbiye, the neighbourhood is quiet, and the household I am staying with has a rifle placed on the table in case of looting or violence. Their ‘new’ dwelling is comprised of one tent, one coop, and a remaining room from the old house. When the earthquake initially struck, the family of eight settled in the coop, next to the chickens. “We ceased to be human, we became chickens,” the woman remarks. Subsequently, they found a tent and pitched it in their garden, and they moved to a sturdy room in their house. During storms, the tent is at risk of being blown away, and the children cry as mud covers everything. The family debates whether to stay or leave their home.

The following day, I attempt to visit the Antakya’s historic old city but find it covered in tarpaulins, with no access allowed. The destruction is absolute; not a single stone remains in place. I meet with the mukhtar, who has lost his wife and son. Even on day 35, the bodies remain buried beneath the rubble, giving off a smell that permeates the city. “We can’t cry anymore, we have become numb,” laments a local passer-by from Antioch, “our tears have dried up. We understand the worthlessness of human life. We search for our loved ones, for any piece of them, an arm, a hand, but we can’t find anything.”

Sitting on ancient stones that have existed for thousands of years, I am faced with the devastation of Antakya, a rare city where the call to prayer, the bell, and the hazzan in the synagogue once harmoniously coexisted. But now, Antakya lies in ruins before me, gone forever, non-existent. Overwhelmed with emotions, I begin to weep for the people of Antakya and their profound sense of loss.

I cry, I cry for Antakya.

Nurcan Baysal











[1] Antakya is the modern form of the ancient city of Antioch and is the capital of Hatay Province. The State of Hatay, which existed for only 10 months, joined Turkey in 1939. Though officially known as Hatay, its natives continue to call it Antakya.

[2] AFAD is the official Turkish state disaster agency.